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Syrian cabinet resigns as Assad seeks to quiet rising dissent

Hundreds of thousands of Syrians gathered in Damascus and several other cities Tuesday in a massive display of support for the beleaguered regime of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president.

The huge rally, possibly the largest seen in Damascus, was an attempt to bolster the regime after two weeks of unprecedented protests, which have left more than 100 people dead and cast into doubt the durability of the Assad family dynasty that has ruled Syria for four decades.

Buoyed by the outpouring of support, Mr. Assad is scheduled to address parliament Wednesday and unveil a list of reforms that the regime hopes will put a lid on the unrest.

Much of central Damascus was given over to the rallies in support of Assad with government ministries and state-run institutions closed to allow employees to attend the event. Syrian flags and posters of Assad lined the streets. Similar rallies were held in Aleppo, the largest city in Syria.

In a first indication of impending change, the Syrian government headed by Prime Minister Najib Ottari resigned Tuesday. SANA, the state-run news agency, said that Assad had accepted the cabinet’s resignation and asked Mr. Ottari to stay on in a caretaker capacity pending the creation of a new government in the coming days. The new cabinet is expected to implement whatever reforms Assad announces in his address to parliament.

What the reforms will include

Syrian officials have indicated in recent days that the reforms will include the repeal of the state of emergency, which has been in force since 1963, the liberalization of media laws, and granting greater freedom to political parties other than the ruling Baath Party.

But the Syrian opposition remains skeptical that the reforms will be sufficiently substantial.

“The [promised] reforms are tricks to divert the attention from public opinion,” said Mohammed Maamoun al-Homsi, a former parliamentarian and dissident, in a videotaped message posted online. “Listen to my advice, this is all to distract.”

Syrians wary of creating turmoil

But most Syrians appear willing to see what Assad has to offer. Many are fearful of the country slipping into the kind of turmoil that has wracked two of its neighbors in the past three decades – Lebanon during its 1975-90 civil war and Iraq with its bitter recent history of Sunni-Shiite fighting and rivalry.

The pro-regime rallies may have briefly dampened the opposition uprising, but many analysts say that the fate of Assad’s rule in Syria depends not only on what concessions he offers, but more importantly how quickly he plans to implement them. Syrians have been living with promises of reform ever since Assad became president in July 2000.

According to a European diplomat in Damascus, the regime has been working quietly on a package of reforms, including those that Assad is expected to reveal on Wednesday.

“I know positively that a lot of these laws they are promising have been under preparation for a long time,” the diplomat says. “They could probably do it quickly. The question is if someone is still working against them within the regime [to block the reforms].”

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